Field studies of nitrogen fixation of Australian alpine plants and soils



Alpine grassland areas in Victoria and New South Wales have been subjected to summer grazing by cattle and sheep for well over a hundred years. Legumes other than a few species of shrubs, which provide a very small percentage of the vegetation cover in the grasslands, are absent. Other alpine communities include Sphagnum ‘mossbeds’ in the valleys and areas of snowgum woodland and shrubland. Virtually nothing is known of the mineral status of these communities and nothing of their nitrogen economy. On the Bogong High Plains, enclosure of grassland and of Sphagnum mossbeds from grazing and trampling has resulted, in the last few decades, in considerable changes in both cover and composition of the vegetation.

A portable gas chromatogram was used to carry out determinations of the capacity of samples of the grassland and Sphagnum to support acetylene reduction to ethylene, by convention equated to a capacity to fix nitrogen. There appears to be a substantial capacity for acetylene reduction associated with the rhizosphere of the grasses (Poa australis agg.).

The capacity of the Sphagnum for acetylene reduction is even greater and appears to be due to facultative anaerobes, abundant only in the upper, living part of the Sphagnum. These organisms may depend in part on leakage of photosynthate from the living Sphagnum. Associations of Sphagnum with blue-green algae appear to be unusual in contrast with work on Swedish subarctic mosses, which is discussed.

The only non-leguminous Australian alpine plant so far examined for nitrogen fixation is Podocarpus lawrencei. A capacity for acetylene reduction was found for neither the nodules of the roots of this plant nor the associated soils.